An Edinburgh University professor shared information with a fake Russian spy in a bid to discredit a non-profit group investigating Syrian war crimes.
Epidemiologist Paul McKeigue had been attempting to expose details about the Commission for International Justice and Accountability – which works to collect and preserve evidence of potential crimes committed in Syria.
He asked a man he knew as ‘Ivan’ to help him gather evidence that the Cija’s director, Bill Wiley, worked for the CIA, the BBC reported.
It later emerged that emails Mr McKeigue believed to be from ‘Ivan’ were instead written by members of the Cija, who allegedly took on the ‘persona’ of a Russian intelligence agent.
Mr McKeigue has insisted he did not do anything wrong during the exchange, claiming he ‘kept an open mind’ about who he may have been speaking to.
Epidemiologist Paul McKeigue (above) had been attempting to expose details about the Commission for International Justice and Accountability
Throughout the correspondence with ‘Ivan’, he allegedly shared a draft of a critical report into the Cija he had co-authored with two members of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.
The Working Group, which Mr McKeigue is also part of, was established to ‘facilitate research into the areas of organised persuasive communication and media coverage, with respect to the 2011-present conflict in Syria including related topics.’
The professor had also asked ‘Ivan’ for information about a woman the Cija’s director was alleged to have slept with, and asked the apparent Russian spy whether Mr Wiley was a cocaine user.
The conversation came about after Mr McKeigue attempted to contact Mr Wiley last February, but the Cija boss recognised the sender’s name and decided not to respond.
The Cija, run by Bill Wiley (above), works to collect and preserve evidence of potential war crimes committed in Syria
The Cija works to gather evidence of crimes that are ‘beyond the reach of international and domestic justice institutions.’ Pictured: Syria
The email had told Mr Wiley that Mr McKeigue and his colleagues were investigating the Cija – which he already knew – and asked questions ‘about irregularities in his businesses.’
Hours later, Mr McKeigue received an email from an anonymous source who said: ‘My office heard from London yesterday that you have some questions about Syria. Perhaps we can help you get to the truth.’
The pair began corresponding about the Cija and Mr Wiley, and the anonymous sender soon started signing his emails ‘Ivan.’
Mr McKeigue said the anonymous sender had ‘offered to answer questions about Syria’, before taking on the ‘persona of a Russian intelligence officer.’
He added: ‘As I have no access to official secrets, this did not concern me.
‘As a citizen investigator, I cultivate contacts with all sorts of people who have relevant information, including anonymous sources and some identified sources whose activities I do not endorse.’
Currently, documents gathered by the non-profit are being used in a war crimes trial in which a former Syrian military intelligence officer is accused of torture
It was said the fake Russian had made references to his headquarters in Moscow and the English emails had included scattered spelling mistakes.
However, it emerged the emails were written by members of the Cija.
The group works to gather evidence of crimes that are ‘beyond the reach of international and domestic justice institutions.’
In a statement, Mr McKeigue said: ‘In December 2020 I received an anonymous email offering to answer questions about Syria. I wrote back with a few questions, and mentioned that we were investigating Cija.
‘The correspondent at this stage did not reveal any affiliation. In response to my question about Cija the correspondent alleged that Wiley is a career CIA officer, and provided a summary of his career.
‘From checking open sources I found apparent confirmation of this alleged affiliation, and other indications that Wiley was hiding matters in his background. The correspondent offered to provide more information, so I continued the dialogue.
‘After the initial exchanges, the correspondent began to drop hints and eventually declared the name “Ivan” and the persona of a a Russian intelligence officer. As I have no access to official secrets, this did not concern me.’
He added that the email exchange was a ‘clever deception operation,’ adding ‘the people on the other end found one of my weaknesses: an obsessiveness with digging for information about what I am investigating.’
Mr McKeigue said: ‘The people on the other end of this sting managed to get me to reveal information provided by others that was not intended to be shared, along with other information that may have been embellished.
‘This was a failure on my part for which I accept responsibility and have apologized to those concerned.
‘These emails were not intended to be made public, and they contain casual and offhand comments not written with the care I would use when writing for publication.’